The Smallest Show on Earth (US title Big Time Operators) (1957)
Directed by Basil Dearden
Produced by Sidney Gillat, Frank Launder, Michael Relph
Written by William Rose, John Eldridge
Cinematography by Douglas Slocombe
Distributed by British Lion Films (UK), Times Film Corporation (US)
There’s something about The Smallest Show on Earth that reminds me of childhood friends, the ones you could never imagine existing anywhere else but in your small, comfortable universe, which might extend as far as a neighborhood street or block. Then suddenly they move to another school, town, or state, and they’re gone. You make other friends, grow older, and think of those childhood friends only in passing thoughts, always pleasant, sometimes bittersweet. The Smallest Show on Earth seems to understand that, and rather than mourn the end of a relationship, it glories on the memories, especially the good ones. Yet sometimes, you want to share those memories with others who perhaps haven't experienced such things...
Matt Spencer (Bill Travers) is a young writer working on a new novel when he gets a phone call informing him that his great uncle has passed away, leaving him an inheritance. When Matt shares the news with his wife Jean (Virginia McKenna, who was married to Travers in real life), the couple begin fantasizing a lavish, exotic lifestyle, free from the worries of bills and debt. Matt and Jean quickly learn from the legal executor of his uncle’s will that they haven’t inherited any money, per se, but rather a movie theater in Northern England. When they arrive at the hometown of Matt’s great uncle, their cab takes them past a massive, modern theater called The Grand. When the cabbie tells them that this is the only theater in town, Matt and Jean are ecstatic.
The problem is the Grand is the only working theater in town. Matt’s great uncle owned the Bijou Kinema (called the Flea Pit by the locals), a ramshackle eyesore filled with a kitschy decor, a building so unstable that while in the theater, passing trains can easily be mistaken for earthquakes. Things get worse. Matt has also inherited the theater’s staff, which includes the oft-drunken projectionist Percy Quill (Peter Sellers), Old Tom (Bernard Miles), the doorkeeper and usher who has never had a proper uniform, and Mrs. Fazackalee (Margaret Rutherford), the bookkeeper and cashier, who will gladly accept money, produce, or even chickens as payment for tickets.
Matt and Jean’s dreams of exotic travel further deteriorate when they discover that the only buyer interested in the property is Mr. Hardcastle (Francis de Wolff), owner of the Grand, who wants to turn the property into a parking garage for his theater. Hardcastle’s offer is little more than chicken feed (which might work out just fine if Mrs. Fazackalee keeps accepting poultry as payment for tickets), so Matt and Jean decide that if they can prove the Bijou is actually making money, it could drive up the price Hardcastle is willing to pay, thus freeing them from the burden of the Bijou and its wacky staff.
This set-up for The Smallest Show on Earth is innocuous enough, but the film really gets going when the Bijou staff take center stage. Sellers, Miles, and Rutherford (all legendary actors) know just how to play these roles, not overdoing them, but rather giving them enough humanity to be believable, quirky, and endearing. The strength of the film, however, stems from this trio making us believe they’re desperately trying to cling to a time that's gone by. The silent era that they love so much, even in 1957, was a quickly passing memory, yet their passion for the silents is admirable, humorous, and charming.
The film’s best sequences occur as we watch the Bijou showing old Westerns to their audiences, some of whom are teenagers just wanting to make out in the theater. Matt figures out that desert pictures are the best, since he can turn on the heat in the Bijou, guaranteeing high concession sales of cold drinks. Mr. Quill’s struggles with the bottle, combined with Matt’s attempt to run the antiquated projection equipment, and a curvaceous woman (June Cunningham) selling ice cream, are just a few of the film’s humorous (and often hilarious) moments.
Basil Dearden, who directed many of my favorite British films, including The League of Gentlemen (1959), Victim (1961), and All Night Long (1961), delivers not only a nice comedy, but also a tribute to silent film and those who loved (and still love) it. Although it’s subtle, Dearden plays close attention to the Bijou’s audience, made up mostly (and surprisingly) of young people, teenagers, rock ’n’ rollers, Teddy Boys, and beautiful girls. Are they at the run-down theater only to clown around and make out, to make fun of these quaint, possibly laughable old relics? Why do they come, and more importantly, why do they keep coming back? What does the film have to say to us today as fewer and fewer classic films are being offered on streaming platforms or on physical media? How do we introduce younger audiences to classic films?
The Smallest Show on Earth makes me feel that I’m not alone in showing classic movies at my library each month, but it also reminds me of the challenges inherent in bringing in younger audiences. All of my classic film friends (both in my geographic circles and online) struggle with this problem. The Smallest Show on Earth makes us laugh, but reminds us that there’s something very much in danger of being lost forever. Maybe drunken projectionists and poultry-collecting ticket-takers aren’t the answer, but maybe we do need to think outside the box more, yet without sacrificing the movies themselves, which is really why we’re here.
Okay, so maybe The Smallest Show on Earth isn’t exactly a great film, but it is funny, filled with a quirky charm, and contains perhaps that little something that will touch movie fans on a personal level. Maybe it’s something that will get us thinking about how we can share the films we love with others. If so, let's all decide to dedicate ourselves to such conversations and sharing of ideas. (You can start right here in the comments section.)
The Smallest Show on Earth is available on DVD from several companies online and recently got a Blu-ray release from the UK company Network Distributing. I hope you'll check it out.
Photos: Network Distributing, DVD Beaver, Black Hole Reviews